Organic Architecture — Ilulissat Icefjord

Organic Architecture
Ilulissat Icefjord


The great American biologist E.O. Wilson says that if we are to safeguard the systems on which all species – including our own – depend, we must devote half of all available land mass to nature. Nature is forgiving. It will bounce back – if we let it. And nature, more than anything else, holds the answers to the environmental crises we have created.

The form of the building was inspired by the flight of a snowy owl over the landscape | © Jeppe Kjær

This mantra is both exhibited and propagated by Danish architect Dorte Mandrup in her creation of the first major visitor’s centre in Greenland. Overlooking the world’s fastest moving iceberg (44 yards a day), the Ilulissat Icefjord allows the public a front row view of climate change in motion. The centre acts as a much needed testament to humility by way of its design; and, through its geographic placement, a transient forum on our effect on the natural world.

The project followed an international architecture competition won by Dorte Mandrup in 2016. Her firm Dorte Mandrup AS has collaborated closely with the philanthropic association Realdania and the Greenland Government who are both funding the centre. The new Ilulissat Icefjord Centre is situated on a UNESCO-protected site.

The structure acts as a literal bridge between the human and the natural world, with its unimposing silhouette allowing for, and aligning with, the arctic horizon beyond. With complex geometry, open glass facades and a roof that is an integrated part of the area’s walking trails, the centre seamlessly connects with the breath-taking environment surrounding it.

The open glazed sections on the sides of the building offers visitors a spectacular view of the landscape | © Kasper Pilemand, DorteMandrup AS
The covered terrace area of the Icefjord Centre | © KJ Greenland

Building in the unforgiving Arctic climate places high demands on both materials and on the construction process. The design of the roof lends the building its aerodynamic form, which breaks the wind and reduces pressure on the facade. Built with a curved roof on stakes above a natural gully, the building is designed to provide sheltered outdoor spaces. In spring-time, this also allows melted water to continue its natural flow underneath the structure and minimise the build-up of snow around it. The load-bearing material of the Icefjord Centre is steel – 80% of which was recycled. The frame of the building consists of more than 50 steel sections, each with a unique geometric form, which together define the building’s distinctive curved body.

No fewer than 300 windows – all different sizes – were installed to ensure transparency and a free-flowing dialogue with the surrounding landscape.

View from above of the Icefjord Centre and Kangia | © Adam Mørk

Dorte Mandrup says of the building’s distinctive expression:


“The Icefjord Centre has a twisted structure that is best described as a boomerang when viewed from above. The building consists of a frame construction that geometrically transitions from an acute triangle at either end of the building to a rectangle in the middle. The facade is made of glass, which gets taller towards the middle of the building and lower towards the acute angles. This creates a rhythm throughout the building that almost gives the impression of the wings of a bird, extended over the landscape.”


In spite of its immaculate design, which is an attraction in its own right, the Ilulissat Icefjord centre is primarily an education space, partly indoors and partly outdoors, for eco-scientists and the general public alike. Visitors are treated to a showcase of archaeological artifacts, exhibitions and a landscape of striking ice floes and prisms made of glass. Authentic ice core samples collected from the inland feature, telling a story of culture and climate dating back to 124.000 B.C.

From the covered terrace area visitors can enjoy the view of the Icefjord Kangia | © Adam Mørk
Inside the Ilulissat Icefjord Centre visitors can explore the exhibition ‘Sermeq pillugu Oqaluttuaq – The Story of Ice’ | © Adam Mørk

But the real showcase here is of the ice itself.


The story of the ice is the story of life. It is the story of the incredible weight of the ice sheet, which over the course of thousands of years crushes the bedrock and pushes it in front of itself, on its slow and irresistible journey to the sea. The crushed rock is left there by the ice, and releases its nutrients so that life can blossom in the sea. Ice also means life for the people and animals who need it for hunting or fishing. Here the ice is the foundation of both nature and human life.

Mandrup approaches design much in the way a sculptor does. The finished product is already fully formed, lying dormant within the landscape – she simply coaxes it out. The Ilulissat Icefjord Centre is architecturally in tune with nature and as Dorte herself puts it, “creates a frame for human life, a bridge between civilization and nature in one of the world’s harshest, most unforgiving climates.”



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